The Minnesota Vikings played most of their starters into the second quarter in Friday’s 20-16 preseason loss at Buffalo and showed, in the process, that the starters only need more work.
Minnesota looked sluggish for much of Friday’s loss, the first extended game action for the first-team offense and defense after several players sat out or played sparingly in the preseason’s first game. The Vikings struggled Friday and will get even more game time on Aug. 25 with a nationally-televised game at San Francisco for the third preseason game.
And Minnesota might finally unveil MVP running back Adrian Peterson in the next game. Peterson sat out Friday’s game in Buffalo and hasn’t played in a preseason game. Knowing the Vikings were without the league MVP, here are five things we learned in Friday’s loss to the Bills:
1. The passing offense still has a ways to go
The rushing offense couldn’t do much outside of a 38-yard run by fourth-string running back Joe Banyard, but the passing game has been the focus in the first two preseason games anyway. However, the starting quarterback Christian Ponder, his offensive line and receivers all had tough games Friday as Buffalo surprisingly unleashed a blitz-heavy attack, not something teams usually use in the preseason. Ponder was sacked on the first offensive player after left tackle Matt Kalil was beat inside by Bills’ end Jerry Hughes, who was playing in place of Mario Williams.
Ponder was under pressure often and usually sure-handed tight end Kyle Rudolph dropped a pass right to him that would have given Minnesota a first-down. In five series, the Vikings’ first-team offense had 82 total yards. Other than a 12-play, 47-yard drive which included four first-downs, Minnesota was three-and-out on the other four possessions.
Ponder finished 5 of 12 for 53 yards. Backup Matt Cassel was 4 of 8 for 29 yards. Kyle Rudolph was the only receiver to catch more than two passes with three catches for 39 yards. Third-string quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson was 10 of 17 for 107 yards and threw a 35-yard touchdown to Rodney Smith. The Vikings finished with 256 total yards, 151 yards on 38 pass attempts.
2. Vikings might want to practice shotgun snaps
Along with protection issues from the entire offensive line, particularly the first- and second-team lines, there was trouble getting the quarterbacks the ball in the shotgun formation. Twice, bad snaps got by quarterbacks and one was recovered in the end zone by Buffalo for a touchdown. More than just a game issue, the team has also had a few bad snaps during training camp practices, often with rookie Jeff Baca and guard Seth Olsen getting time at center to see if they can offer versatility.
Minnesota is trying to utilize Ponder in the shotgun formation. Starting center John Sullivan sent one bad snap past Ponder. Backup center Joe Berger, another veteran, also snapped one high over Cassel’s head which ended up in the endzone. If the Vikings want to use the shotgun, they need to make sure they can get the ball to the quarterback.
3. Locke knows how to pin them deep
One of the specialties for rookie punter Jeff Locke coming out of college was his ability to down punts inside the 20-yard line. Locke, unlike previous punter Chris Kluwe, uses an end-over-end, Australian rules style kick to better control distance. He showed how effective the technique is on Friday.
Locke, who had two of his five punts down inside the 20-yard line last week, was really on-point Friday with three downed inside the 20-yard line, including two consecutive punts down inside the 5-yard line by Minnesota’s Bobby Felder. Locke is quickly showing why the Vikings drafted him to replace Kluwe and transitioning well to the NFL. He had seven punts for a 48.9-yard average on Friday, with a long of 61 yards.
4. Rhodes’ physicality pays off
Ever since Minnesota drafted Xavier Rhodes with the second of three first-round picks, the talk has been about his ability to play physical with an aggressive mindset. He’s big and can manhandle receivers, especially in press coverage. Rhodes is finally over the hamstring injury that slowed him earlier in training camp and Friday was his first game in a Vikings’ uniform.
Rhodes made a big play happen by jamming receiver Marquise Goodwin early and then tipping the pass in the air where safety Jamarca Sanford came up with an interception. Turnovers, again, have been an emphasis for the defense during training camp and interceptions have been hard to come by for the Minnesota defense in recent years. Rhodes has been around the ball often all summer long and should only improve as he continues to get more comfortable.
5. Maybe more options for returning
Cordarrelle Patterson is likely locked into the No. 1 kickoff returner spot, but the Vikings would like to know they have another quality option there as well as figuring out who will be the team’s main punt returner. The punt return job will play a big part in determining whether a few players make the team. Patterson only had one kickoff return chance Friday and brought it out 22 yards. Marcus Sherels is still considered the top punt return option. He had two punt returns for 10 yards on Friday.
In their place though, two players made plays that will keep them in the conversation for roster spots. Receiver Stephen Burton, who will also get a shot at punt return even though he didn’t have a chance Friday, returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown. But Burton’s effort was nullified by a holding penalty on Tyrone McKenzie. Felder, a cornerback, had a solid special teams game. He downed the two punts inside the 5-yard line and also had two nifty punt returns, showing some ability to make defenders miss. He had a 21-yard punt return on his first chance and gave Minnesota good field position on its final series by running out a punt deep inside his own territory for a 37-yard return.